By: Dan Ross
Using the information fed into the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database (EID) concerning race-day equine fatalities, the numbers nationwide appear to have declined over the past few years, from a rate of two every 1000 starters back in 2009, to a little over 1.5 in 2016. The latest EID figures for 2017 are due to be published next week.
This trend hasn’t been uniform, however. Some jurisdictions and individual racetracks have come under fire for equine fatality rates that have been higher than this national average–few more so than Del Mar, where their boutique summer meet always sits beneath a harsh media glare.
But last year, the track boasted a marked decrease in racehorse fatalities during both morning training and racing–five during the 2017 summer meet, compared to the summer prior, when 17 horses died.
Which means that, with this year’s summer meet only months away and as preparations step up, track management aren’t experiencing quite the same eye-watering pressure compared to years past, and are hopeful that the myriad changes instituted before last year’s summer meet will have an enduring, positive effect.
“What a difference a year makes,” said Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s executive vice president of racing and industry relations. “Things started fitting into place.”
So, how was this managed?
The approach was multi-pronged, with some changes designed to have direct and immediate effect. For one, racing at Del Mar started a week later than usual, to give management longer to ready the tracks. And, in order to alleviate the pressure-cooker intensity of a morning, 10% less horses were stabled on the property, while a 10-minute window after each renovation was left open only to horses working. But other measures were designed to have a more indirect, but no less potent, impact.
“You want people to self-regulate,” said California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) equine medical director, Rick Arthur. To achieve this, the CHRB, in cooperation with Del Mar, flagged certain horses deemed at relative risk of catastrophic injury. And two additional state veterinarians were drafted in to assist the usual team of official veterinarians to routinely monitor these horses, so that, by the time any flagged horse made it to the usual pre-race examination, they had been seen–typically multiple times–in the preceding weeks and months.
The Jockey Club’s InCompass system provided a daily itinerary of horses that fell within two broad parameters: horses that hadn’t raced for a period of 120 days or more, and those that hadn’t started before four years of age or older. That same list also included other important information points for context, like whether the horse had previously been on the vet’s and Steward’s lists, as well as the date of its last two workouts, the distances and times.
As an additional layer of scrutiny, the past performances were pulled on entry day, to identify other horses not included on the daily InCompass list, but whose profiles set off alarm bells nonetheless, including horses being dropped in claiming price, and those shipping in from Northern California or out-of-state.
“It was a monumental effort,” Robbins said. “But I think it paid pretty good dividends in preventing something potentially catastrophic.”
On top of that, those out on the track routinely every morning, along with a state veterinarian and safety steward posted on the grounds seven days a week, were asked to keep their eyes peeled for any warning signs during training, said Robbins. But, as he sees it, Santa Anita track superintendent, Dennis Moore, who early last year assumed responsibility over Del Mar’s main track, played a vital role in reducing catastrophic injury numbers.
“He saw a few things that concerned him,” said Robbins.
One of the problems Moore immediately noticed was that the “grading”–i.e., the level-of the surface–was wrong in places.
“There were inconsistencies,” he said.
After conducting an initial survey of the track, he dug it up entirely, and re-surveyed and re-graded the base, which is a material of decomposed granite. As a fail-safe in the event of technological glitches with the equipment used, Moore hired a certified surveyor to “check behind” the original company charged with grading the base.
At the same time, he altered the banking of the turns, raising them about a foot to “pretty much” match the geometric shape of Santa Anita’s main track. When satisfied, he re-laid the surface and, with a maintenance routine that mirrored the one at Santa Anita, set about perfecting the techniques used when the racehorses would arrive that summer.
“We had a little extra time this year, and what we did was we simulated race-days,” he said. “We would water and harrow, water and harrow, just like if we’d have ten races for the day, 20 minutes apart. We did it enough times where we were set up where we wanted to be.”
It’s not just Del Mar’s main track that has endured heightened scrutiny in recent years. Between 2013 and 2014, Del Mar’s turf course was widened, the banking was raised slightly, and a new Bermuda grass surface was laid on top of new soil and a new irrigation system. But the bespoke course suffered initial teething problems when a number of horses were catastrophically injured during its first couple weeks of official use, prompting a temporary suspension of turf racing that summer.
Currently, while the grass is on the patchy and short side, the track is being aerated to promote drainage. This means little holes are punched into the soil and filled with “Turface”–small pellets of high-fired calcined clay, while “cores” of thicker turf are removed from the outside of the track and plugged into the thinner patches near the inside. To help the Bermuda grass sprout as quickly as possible during this slow-growing season–its most fertile months are August through the start of October–the roughest patches are covered in blankets that act like greenhouses.
“We’re always trying to speed things up and create conditions that are beneficial to horse racing,” said turf course superintendent, Leif Dickinson.
And it’s due to these sorts of routine, every-day procedures the surface has been getting progressively more forgiving, said Dickinson, pointing to the positive reviews received at the Breeders’ Cup last year.
“Every year since we’ve built this track, we’ve been seeing how much softer we can get this thing,” he said. “It was softer this year than it was last year. It was softer last year than the year before that. Soft is good. But if it’s too soft it tears up. It’s a balance.”
The superintendents at both tracks feed information like track moisture content, compaction and shear strength–shear strength influences the slide and penetration of the hoof in the track surface–to Mick Peterson’s Maintenance Quality System program, with an eye to maintaining consistency.
“There’s so many things that have to go right with a year like we’ve had at Del Mar, that you hate to get confident,” Peterson said, stressing how multiple variables weigh in on any one single catastrophic event.
But where variables can be identified, trends appear. This notion has been borne out by people like Tim Parkin, a clinical epidemiologist with the University of Glasgow, whose research has been pivotal in identifying a data-driven correlation between certain specific factors–like speed and race distance–and an increased chance of catastrophic injury occurring.
Of all racehorse fatalities during both training and racing over the last five years in California, for example, 113 horses had been off for 120 days or more, while 49 of those had been on the vet’s list at least once during their career. Honing in specifically on Del Mar, of the 17 horses fatally injured in 2016, five had gaps in training of 60 days or more prior to the catastrophic incident.
But Peterson said that none of the five horses fatally injured last summer–not including a horse, it should be noted, that also died as a result of an incident in the barn area–there were no over-arching trends to explain their deaths.
“When you get the numbers down to five, we can’t draw any conclusions,” he said. “But one thing we really are beginning to get confidence about is what the process needs to be to get the track ready for the race-meet.”
An important trigger in the processes adopted at Del Mar last year were the stakeholder meetings comprising individual groups of trainers, vets, and jockeys at the end of the summer 2016 meet to discuss candidly their thoughts on the rash of racehorse deaths, said CHRB executive director Rick Baedeker.
“We let people just speak their mind,” he said. “And we came out of their realizing that something had to change.”
Some of these developments weren’t confined to just Del Mar. The same more intensive pre-race-day monitoring program continued at Santa Anita, and the intention is to expand it to Los Alamitos when racing moves there in a few months. Baedeker believes this to be one important contributing factor behind the overall fatality-rate decline last year in California–114 horses were fatally injured during racing and training, as compared to 152 in 2016.
“We hope that’s not an anomaly,” he said. “It’s nice when you can come up with a plan and believe that it has made a difference.”
Among the horsemen, some complained Del Mar’s slower main-track contributed to a perceived increase in other non-fatal injuries. But according to Jim Cassidy, president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, the sorts of injuries typically seen were “recoverable and manageable.” And he believes that that the changes made to the main-track primarily explain the reduction in equine fatalities last year.
“I think almost everyone was pleased,” he said. “Better too slow than too fast, right?”
What’s more, overall field sizes were up last year at Del Mar, from the year prior. And so, with all this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that the same protocols established last summer will remain in place again this summer at the track.
“I don’t think there’s anything we’ll eliminate with what we did last summer,” said Tom Robbins. “And if anybody has any new ideas, we’ll be listening.”